Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Disney's Chanticleer

Den of Geek today relates:

For every movie from Disney Animation that is created, there are dozens more that never make it. Here are some failed Disney projects...


This is one of the most infamous unproduced projects, dating just as far back as The Snow Queen in terms of attempts to develop it. The source material was slightly unlikely, coming from a pre-WWI class satire called Chantecler, written by French playwright Edmund Rostand, about an egotistical rooster who believes that he makes the sun come up with his crowing.

The project first came to Disney's attention in the 1940s, and was merged with a problematic feature project called Reynard The Fox. It was shelved during the Second World War, like many of Disney's other feature developments, but it came back around in the 1960s.

Animators Marc Davis and Ken Anderson found the archive of the project up to that point in Disney's animation library, while looking to develop something that would prove to be quite ahead of their time. They wanted to do a Broadway musical in the style of Disney animation.

The project, in which the hero was renamed Chanticleer, went on for some time after that, with Davis and Anderson working on the script, the songbook and concept art. The story developed to where Chanticleer was the mayor of a town of barnyard animals, and his authority was challenged by the aforementioned Reynard, leading him to eventually learn humility and become a better leader when the sun comes up with or without his crowing.

But at a point when Walt Disney was hoping to open another Disneyland, somewhere else in the US, he was convinced to scale back production from an animated feature every two years, to one every four years. That meant that the company had to choose between cancelling one of two projects currently in development- this one, and 1963's The Sword In The Stone, and we all know how that one turned out.

What's fascinating about this one is that the Broadway model eventually took Disney into a renaissance in the 1990s, with films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, and yet Davis and Anderson were suggesting that the same thing would have kept Disney relevant back in the 1960s. The project was hugely ambitious, and thus more of a gamble than The Sword In The Stone, and Disney executives apparently couldn't get past the unlikelihood of a chicken as a hero.

Some of Davis' drawings for Chanticleer were pilfered for 1973's Robin Hood, a production that also pinched pennies by Xeroxing character artwork from The Jungle Book. When the even more conservative Disney executives of the 1980s shot down a pitch to revive the project, animator Don Bluth decided to take up the cause at his own breakaway animation studio, Aurora Productions. The result, 1991's Rock-A-Doodle, bears little resemblance to the plans as they existed at Disney, and isn't exactly the most fondly remembered of Bluth's animations either.

Davis' concept art for Chanticleer is still highly regarded nowadays, and we've since had movies like Chicken Run, Free Birds and Disney's own Chicken Little, all led by animated poultry. Unfortunately, barring a Frozen-style revamp from the ground up, we can probably dismiss any hope of the sun coming out for this one. ...

But there's more to the story. ...

Chanticleer received some full-bore development in the Disney animation department during the early 1960s. There was a lot of boards done, color designs (my father did some), and songs written. A large pitch meeting was held for Walt, during which artwork was reviewed, boards unveiled, and songs played. Larry Clemmons, who attended the meeting, told me this:

The presentation didn't come off. The songs didn't gel, it was some guy up on a piano singing "cockadoodle doo! Cockaddoodle doo!" I sort of cringed in my chair. At the end of the whole thing Walt said: "I don't know guys, the rooster isn't a particularly appealing character. Not much warmth. Take a few days, see if you can come up with a different approach. ..."

Vance Gerry, who worked with Ken Anderson on the storyboards, said:

Walt wasn't real enthusiastic, but I was young and stupid. I thought the meeting hadn't been that bad. When Walt said "See if you can develop something different," I thought we had a shot. Ken and I went back and worked on different concepts. We really worked hard, but the new boards didn't go over any better than the first ones did. The picture didn't get developed any further. ..."

You need to be aware here of a few bullet points.

* Vance was always self-effacing, downgrading his own talent and accomplishments. When he said to me "I thought the meeting had gone well," I took that with a grain of salt. Walt didn't totally slam the door at the end of the pitch, but he came close. Vance likely knew that.

* And Larry was not exactly an objective party when he related his story of the pitch meeting. He and Ken Anderson were not friends, (in fact, Ken was downright hostile toward Mr. Cleemons, sending him nasty caricatures through inter-office mail) so Larry had reason to put some top-spin on his story about the pitch. It was a tale about Ken failing with Walt, and Larry would have been happy to embellish the anecdote, saying how badly the whole presentation went.

For additional stuff on "Chanticleer", and Marc Davis's and Ralph Hulett's artwork on the project, click here and here.


Unknown said...

Rock-A-Doodle is a BRILLIANT film--a prime example of imaginative storytelling, great song-writing, and expert animation. I'm glad we didn't have to suffer Marc Davis and Vance Gerry's vision so we could all share in Don's tasteful and timeless take on the story.

Steve Hulett said...

Couldn't agree more. No idea why it wasn't a chart buster in its time. But the public, she is fickle, no?

Chris Sobieniak said...

People have their tastes Steve, I don't care for Rock-A-Doodle either, probably because by the time I saw it I was already nearly my adult years and it didn't appeal to me at all.

Aside from there having been a book release featuring some of Davis' sketches for the Chanticleer project that was published a few decades back, I noticed someone was selling drawings from the Reynard project online a while back I pinned some of the images for my Pinterest boards. They were misidentified as having been from Robin Hood.
Here's some sketches said to be from Bill Peet.

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